NGO 2.0 Using the Web to Reunite Refugees

Facebook is great if you want to find long-lost classmates. But what if you're a refugee looking for family members? A new Web site seeks to provide those displaced by war or disaster with a platform to search themselves -- provided they have Internet access.

Facebook addicts will, of course, tell you that the social networking site is full of ways to stay connected. You can poke. You can chat. You can write on your friends' walls. You can play Scrabble.

More to the point, though, you also have a decent chance of finding that cute girl who sat next to you in the fifth grade -- the one you haven't seen in 15 years. That, at least, was the function that caught the imaginations of Danish brothers Christopher and David Mikkelsen. Years ago, the two realized that a social networking platform might be a great tool refugees could use to help them find their families. Now, just a few months after the launch of , the site has made great strides toward becoming the go-to search engine for displaced people around the world.

"It's really just another search engine," Christopher Mikkelsen, 30, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But the fact that it is specifically intended to help refugees find their families makes it a beacon. It is about helping the refugees and helping those people trying to help refugees."

The idea is actually a very simple one. Each year, millions of people are uprooted by war, famine or natural disaster. Escaping catastrophe, though, is not always an orderly process. Families can easily get separated and, once the displaced cross borders, often get sent to widely dispersed destinations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are over 1.5 million minors who have lost contact with their parents.

Searching for Lost Family

There are, of course, many different initiatives out there aimed at reuniting divided refugee families. In Germany alone, the Red Cross receives thousands of requests for help each year from refugees or immigrants looking for family members they have lost contact with due to armed conflict or disaster.

"There simply isn't any other organization that works in conflict zones around the world," Dorota Dziwoki, who leads the search service for the German Red Cross, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The Red Cross system, though -- as efficient as it may be -- requires refugees to apply for help from a third party. Requests are sent first to Red Cross headquarters in Geneva from where they are then sent to personnel working in the conflict zone in question. Should Refugees United, as the Mikkelsens call their organization, attract enough members, it could provide the displaced with a new way to search -- one that they control themselves.

"We didn't want to be the kind of NGO that is a third party providing help to refugees," said David Mikkelsen, 34. "We wanted to give them the opportunity to take control of their situations and help themselves -- and give NGOs another tool to help."

That dream, though, can only become a reality if enough people learn about the site and begin to use it. Refugees United has existed as an organization since 2005. During the first few years, the Mikkelsens dedicated their resources to building the Web platform -- done mostly with volunteer help -- and raising seed money to launch the site, a project helped immensely by two Danish foundations. Volunteers have translated the platform into 23 different languages, with an initial emphasis on African languages. The next language will be Bhutanese, prompted by the current wave of ethnic Nepalis arriving in the United States from the Himalayan country. The Bhutanese government stripped them of their citizenship in the early 1990s and they have lived in refugee camps ever since. Recently, Washington agreed to resettle 60,000 of them.

Getting the Word Out

Since the Web site's November, 2008 launch, though, the brothers have focused their attention on generating awareness about the site. A partnership with the public relations firm Ketchum PR has helped. Meanwhile, FedEx delivers flyers and posters to all corners of the world and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) provides the Mikkelsen brothers with free airfare. The idea is to raise awareness among NGOs already working with refugees so that they can get the word out.

"If we had actually sat down beforehand and made a list of all the things we had to do, we probably never would have done it," says Christopher.

The pair's dedication to helping refugees, however, belies that claim. David began working with refugees earlier this decade, teaching Danish to new arrivals and making a video to help them adjust to life in Copenhagen. During the filming, he met Mansour, a 17 year old who had fled Afghanistan. Five years earlier, Mansour's family had paid a trafficker to evacuate them from Kabul to Peshawar, located across the border in Pakistan.

The night before the family was scheduled to leave, a spot opened up on another vehicle. The trafficker asked Mansour's family to fill it and as the oldest son, Mansour, then 12, jumped aboard.

Nicknames, Pets and Birthmarks

By the time he met the Mikkelsen brothers, Mansour hadn't heard a thing from his family for over five years. Together, though, they began to search, eventually learning that Mansour's brother had been sold into slavery and was living without identity papers in the southwestern Russian city of Stavropol. Mansour is now in touch with his brother, but he still hasn't been able to track down the rest of his family.

Cases like that and the difficult searches they entail will persist despite Refugees United's arrival on the Web. But the Mikkelsens are hoping that, because the site protects the anonymity of its registered users -- particularly important for those who have crossed borders illegally -- many displaced people will begin using it. Instead of having to fill out forms full of personal information, those joining fill their profiles with details that only those close to them might be able to recognize -- things like childhood nicknames, names of pets and birthmarks.

Still, the challenges facing the Web site seem immense. Internet access for refugees is one. While many have access to the Internet, as many others do not. The Mikkelsens are hoping to encourage major computer conglomerates to donate computer equipment to refugee camps and soon plan to launch a pilot project in South America. They are also working on mobile platforms so the site can be accessed from mobile phones.

But the greatest challenge remains that of attracting enough members so that reunification can become more than just a remote possibility. Though they don't track their members, "hundreds" of people have already signed up, says Christopher. "That's not a big number in the Internet world," he says unflinchingly. "But if you ask people in the refugee world, that is huge. If we can just unite that number of people, we would be a great success."

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